Thursday, July 16, 2009

Kitchen-sink Fighters

As a Divorce Coach, my life and my career are dedicated to reducing the conflict that scars parents and children during the time while the marriage is ending and they are working to re-structure a post-divorce family. My passion is to show people better ways to interact, so that they and their children can move on.

So it may seem paradoxical that I actually DO advocate "fighting", but hear me out.

My good friend, Mark Rogers, refers to an argument as a "discussion with the heart heat turned up". This is an apt description. For most of us, when we feel passionately about a topic, we will bring emotional energy to it. If that topic is in disagreement with someone else, and if they are equally passionate about their position, a fight will ensue.

But there are ways to "fight" that can be healthy, and ways that are unhealthy. One of the ways that is unhealthy is when one of the parties simply swallows down their point, rather than present their position. This tactic masquerades as "peaceful", when in fact, the party who "stuffs" their emotions in this way is likely to suffer from serious health problems related to chronic stress, is likely to build resentment that can be fatal to the relationship, and is likely to "explode" when the pressure of all those stuffed emotions gets to be too much.

However, the other unhealthy fighting style that I wish to address in today's column is the "Kitchen-sink Fighter". You've probably already guessed what this person does in the fight: they throw in every accusation imaginable, every complaint, every past infraction, everything including 'the kitchen sink'. Rather than focus on the topic under discussion, this fighter rambles all over the place, engages in ad hominem attacks, and resorts to crazy-making tactics to distract and disrupt the argument. If you've ever observed this behavior, you may have found yourself wondering if the person really wanted to resolve the issue, or if they merely wanted to keep the fight going.

Sometimes, the Kitchen-sink Fighter is just a "Stuffer", going to the next phase. Having never gained resolution on any of the topics that they have previously stuffed, the Stuffer becomes a Kitchen-sink Fighter when the pressure of all of those previously unresolved issues finds a weak spot during the fight.

If you are engaging in conflict with a Kitchen-sink Fighter, what can you do? Practice some of these key phrases:

"I would like it if we can focus on this one issue for right now. Can we put those other issues aside for the moment?"

"I hear your concerns, however, I think we will get more accomplished if we keep working on resolving this one things, first."

"Would it help if we write these other ideas down, so that we can get back to them later? For right now, this one issue is the most important to me."

You can change up the words so that they feel more natural to you. The primary thing is to focus on the issue that you started with, promise your partner that you WILL come back to the other items, and put the emphasis on your own feelings, not on accusing the other person. For example, "you never stay on topic, all you ever do is ramble around" is not going to get you very far with your partner.

If you are a Kitchen-sink Fighter, then ask yourself how that works for you. Do you find yourself accomplishing resolution to the issues you are attempting to address, or do you see yourself going around in circles? Would you rate your times with your coach, counselor, or mediator as effective time, or do you often feel that when you are done, all you did was waste your time?

If you realize that being a Kitchen-sink Fighter is not working for you, then it may help to create an agenda. You might ask your coach or counselor to help you limit the topics in your sessions to just one, or maybe two topics at the most. If you've spent enough time to get to the third topic, then frankly, you are probably emotionally exhausted and due for a rest.

Working our way through conflicts, disagreements, and arguments is not a bad thing. Every human on the planet -- guess what, even the happily married ones -- finds themselves in disagreement with someone who is important to them, at some point or another. The difference is in what you learn to do with it.


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